Architectural Literacy for Kids

Julie Pippert
November 30, 2016

Architecture is the art and science of designing and erecting buildings. It's all around us, any building or house. teaching children a little about architecture, and to pay attention to the buildings around us, is a fun exercise. This is a very short, and very simple, guide to architecture, but it will help you as you and your child start to notice and learn about the buildings around you. 

Important Terms and Building Elements

When learning about something new, it's important to learn the vocabulary first. Architecture is rich with its own language, including some complex words, but there are essential basics:

Foundation. Most foundations are made of concrete. Some buildings have concrete poured directly on the grounds—this is called slab on grade foundation and is common in the South and anywhere that has stable soil. Suspended slab foundations drill deep piers into the ground to provide support for the concrete slab—this is common in coastal regions or where soil is unstable. Talk about the type of soil in your region and the type of foundation most buildings have in your area. Are buildings built directly on the ground? Do they have basements? Are they built high because you live near water?

Wall. Houses have wood frames and wood walls, but most buildings have steel or concrete frames for walls. Steel and concrete frames are sturdy, long-lasting, and are non-combustible. Once the frames are in place, builders sheet the building in wood, brick, stone, vinyl or another type of siding on the outside and drywall—which is compressed gypsum, a rock that is ground up to be sort of like plaster then compressed into boards—on the inside. Ask your child to observe what type of wall is on the exterior.

Roof. Some roofs are flat and some are pitched (at an angle). Ask your child to observe the type of roof. Is it flat? At an angle? A mix? What shapes can you see? Talk about:

  • Ridges, which are the horizontal line at the top of a sloped roof
  • Hips, which are the points where two sides of a roof come together at the top. Rainwater runs down from hips.
  • Valleys, which are the downward portions where two sides of the roof come together. Rainwater flows towards hips.
  • Eaves, which are the overhanging lower edges of the roof
  • Dormers, which are the piece of the roof that projects out over a window
  • Gables, which are the triangles at the end of a pitched roof
  • Soffit, which is the underside of an overhanging roof eave

Windows and Doors. Doors and doorways are how you get inside the building and from room to room. Ask your child to observe the doorways: Are they single? Double? Solid? Glass? Are there decorations around it? What sort of doorknobs or hardware is there? Windows come in all shapes and sizes, and fulfill a variety of purposes. Ask your child to observe the windows: Are they big? Small? High? Low? Let in a lot of light? Are they flush with the building? Do they stick out from the building?

Important Building History and Styles

Architectural history is strongly tied to our civilization's development and history. Building styles often reflect the prevailing culture, style and though of the society. Many architectural historians believe that architecture is often a leading element for new styles and thoughts. The US has some very distinctive styles you are likely to see in buildings and houses. Try to link the time period and history with the styles:

Early architecture in the US:

Colonial (1600-1700). Key features are symmetrical and simplified style with strong, distinctive shapes, usually squares and rectangles, often two stories in height, with rooms oriented towards a central chimney.

American Georgian (1700-1750). Symmetrical, with four rooms on each of the two stories, each room had its own fireplace.

Federal (1750-1850). Inspired by Thomas Jefferson, this style was influenced by Roman architecture so the architecture is a combination of form and function. You might often see pillars or columns on this style.

Neo-classicism (1800-1850). Closely tied to Federal, this style drew heavily from Greek architecture and grand structures such as Versailles, neo-classic buildings are often built outward in wings from the center. The Boston State House is a great example.

Later architecture in the US:

Eclecticism (1850-1900). These buildings are ornate, with architecturally unnecessary flourishes. It draws on a variety of styles from around the world. It's why you might find a Medieval castle in Missouri or a Chinese temple style building in New York. The US Capitol in Washington, DC is a good example.

Academicism (1880-1900). The leading architect, HH Richardson, took classic theory and applied it in a modern design. This launched balloon framing—wood framing, which allowed quick building as westward expansion and population growth demanded. The Boston Public Library is a famous example.

Chicago School (1880-1900). This style is easy to identify: look up! Steel skeleton, large and tall are the key features of this style.

20th Century (from 1900 on). This includes some wonderful styles such as Frank Lloyd Wright and California Pioneer, and some very modern styles such as Brutalism, Modernism and Skyscrapers.

Important lessons about sustainable design

Modern architects are concerned about the environmental and human impacts of building. Originally, all buildings used natural materials. But as populations grew, we over-harvested materials such as wood and began to use manufactured materials. In the 1960s, Rachel Carson wrote a book called Silent Spring that revealed some human inventions harmed the ecosystem. Architects are conscientious about how the built environment affects the natural environment. They think about where they are building, what they use to build, how they design, how they landscape, and so forth. If they build "green" then they are using an environmentally sensitive approach to design and building. They might use local materials that are sustainable, for example, or use recycled materials instead of new materials. Buildings that are created this way are LEED certified, which means Leadership Energy Efficient Design. Buildings must meet the criteria of sustainable design to get certified. Ask if new buildings are LEED certified, and if this is important to you, let your elected officials know you would like to see all public buildings be LEED certified.

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